Although science fiction usually looks to the skies, there's a whole world of wonder and mystery beneath the ocean's surface. When you need some advanced submarines to go exploring, these are the fourteen best.
1. The HMS Sword from Facing the Flag by Jules Verne
Twenty years before German U-Boats would burn submarines irrevocably into the global consciousness, Jules Verne imagined this British experimental submarine, commanded by the heroic Lieutenant Devon. The ship used two electric dynamos for power that had to be charged while in port, giving it a maximum two days at sea at a time. The book follows Devon and his crew as they try to free two captives from the clutches of pirates. The book was adapted in 1958 for the Czechoslovakian movie The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, the trailer for which you can see above.
2. The Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
Of course, there's a rather more famous submarine that Jules Verne created a quarter century before the Sword: Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Named after steamship creator Robert Fulton's 1800 invention, generally considered the world's first practical submarine, the Nautilus extracts sodium from seawater to power its sodium/mercury batteries and has the ability to farm food from the sea itself for the crew's sustenance. Double-hulled and seventy meters long, this behemoth has a top speed of fifty knots. Captain Nemo, the alias of Prince Armitage Ranjit Dakkar, is a scientific and engineering genius, who has turned his back on humanity due to the loss of his family and the brutality of the world's governments.
The Nautilus is one of the most enduring icons of 19th century fiction, and it was brought into the modern imagination with the 1954 Disney adaption of Verne's book. A more recent update is found in Alan Moore's compendium of the public domain, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There, the Nautilus is far bigger than in Verne's original book, and even more fearsome and more luxurious than before. Ultimately, this submarine is revealed to actually be the successor to the original Nautilus, which was destroyed in Verne's followup book, The Mysterious Island.
3. The Iron Fish
British comics never quite embraced superheroes in the same way their American counterparts did, leading to a much wider variety of heroes with a science fiction flair. Two such heroes were Danny and Penny Gray, the operators of the Iron Fish submarines, who debuted in the British comic The Beano in 1949. The tiny but powerful subs were designed by their father, Professor Gray, and operated by the children from their home in Sunport.
The subs could jump out of the water, maneuver nimbly enough to puncture a diver's air hose without harming the diver himself, and electrify its hull to ward off sea animals. The Gray twins put the Iron Fish to good use, fighting all manner of undersea criminals and terrorists. A new version of the Iron Fish resurfaced in a 1980s update of the original comic, this time under the command of the young Danny Boyle. The Iron Fish had at least one notable fan - Alan Moore made sure to stick a cameo by a very young Professor Gray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where the boy tells Captain Nemo he too hopes to make incredible submarines some day.
4. The USOS Seaview and the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
The original 1961 movie sets the stakes about as big as they possibly can be: a meteor has made the Van Allen radiation belt around the Earth catch on fire, and the entire planet will die within in three weeks unless some way is found to reverse this disaster. Top scientists figure a nuclear missile from the Marianas Trench will (somehow) sever the belt from Earth, sending it into space and saving the planet. The only submarine that can do the job is the state-of-the-art Seaview.
The movie was popular enough to spawn the longest-running American science fiction show of the 1960s, which saw the Seaview fight aliens, sea monsters, dinosaurs, and occasionally hostile foreign governments. It also introduced the Flying Sub, which you can see above.
5. The Hydronaut from Around the World Under the Sea
The title might sound like a clumsy mash-up of two Jules Verne books, and that's probably no accident - this movie pretty much wears its debt to Verne's idea on its sleeve. The 1966 science fiction film follows a group of civilian scientists as they attempt the first circumnavigation of the globe in a submarine. There's a more practical side to their trip as well, as they hope to develop a more reliable way of predicting earthquakes and volcanoes. They're going to need it, too, as the entire world appears to be on the brink of one major natural disaster. (Also, there's a love triangle.)
6. Proteus and Voyager from Fantastic Voyage
It wasn't just the world's oceans that science fiction submarines explored, and there was no more famous example of that than the ship in Fantastic Voyage. (It's either called Proteus or Voyager, depending on which version you're going with.) The 1966 science fiction film (which was novelized by an obscure writer by the name of Isaac Asimov) follows a team of scientists as they miniaturize a submarine and go inside the body of a Soviet defector in a desperate bid to save him from a blood clot. Of course, since this is the Cold War, there are traitors about, and they have their work cut out for them to remove the clot before the ship becomes large enough for the body's defenses to notice and eradicate.
7. Supercar from Supercar
We've officially entered the Gerry Anderson section of this list, and we won't be leaving anytime soon. The British TV legend, best known for his Supermarionation shows and the mid-70s cheese-fest that is Space: 1999, made shows with some of the most revolutionary special effects and model work ever created, and that most definitely extended to the seas. He and his team, which included special effects experts whose future work would include 2001, Star Wars, and the Bond films, perfected the tricky task of creating underwater environments on a limited budget.
By placing a narrow screen filled with water in front of a dry environment, they could then use some clever lighting to create the illusion that the entire set was underwater. The first test case for this technology was his 1961 series Supercar, which followed test pilot Mike Mercury and his titular car, which really could go anywhere, including under the sea...well, it's probably better if I let the opening titles above explain it to you.
8. Stingray from Stingray
Anderson's exploration of the underwater world reached its apex with 1964's Stingray, which placed the massive, futuristic submarine Stingray front and center for thirty-nine episodes. The series concerns the World Aquanaut Security Patrol and their growing awareness of threats posed by underwater aliens, almost all of whom are hostile. The first line of defense in this war is Stingray, piloted by Captain Troy Tempest and Lieutenant "Phones" Sheridan.
The show was often gloriously silly - although he was very much the manly action hero, Tempest could also be kind of a huge asshole (actually, that might be because he was a manly action hero), which often led to melodrama made even more ridiculous by the fact that it was all done by a bunch of cartoonish puppets. The show was also known for some truly surreal dream episodes, which included underwater cavemen, the Stingray crew shrunk to one inch tall and stranded in a dining room, and Phones doing a Highland fling. Even so, all of that craziness generally stands up as part of the show's sometimes campy charm, and at its heart it was more often than not a genuinely exciting adventure show with top notch special effects. (I'm something of a fan.)
9. Thunderbird 4 from Thunderbirds
After going all submarines, all the time for Stingray, any followup was probably going to give the underwater adventure short shrift, but Anderson's magnum opus Thunderbirds really does seem to go rather far the other way. The show concerns International Rescue, a secret organization that uses incredible machinery to perform rescue operations that would otherwise be totally impossible. Central to these efforts are the five Thunderbird craft, the main rescue machines used by the organization and each piloted by one of the five Tracy brothers.
Thunderbird 4, piloted by the almost too good-natured Gordon Tracy, is the organization's submarine, and it must be said that it sure isn't Stingray. For one thing, it's positively tiny - its much, much smaller than any of the other Thunderbird craft. Indeed, it actually has to be carried by Thunderbird 2 to the rescue scene. That said, it's an incredibly versatile craft that can more than hold its own when it's called upon, as you can see in the clip above.
10. Skydiver from UFO
When Gerry Anderson made the switch to live-action in 1970 with UFO, it took a while for him and his creative team to figure out how to tell stories that actually made use of the greater emotional register afforded by using real actors, particularly star Ed Bishop. UFO eventually found its emotional heart (and in a pretty major way), but one thing that worked for the show straight away was its high tech machines.
Defending the world against mysterious, hostile aliens, the secret organization SHADO uses a variety of different machines in its efforts. The most powerful is arguably the submarine Skydiver, which more than earns the use of the word "Sky" in its name. When UFOs penetrate Earth's atmosphere, the submarine can launch the jet interceptor Sky One, which might just be the coolest thing ever. You can see the launch sequence above.
11. P-1 from Marine Boy
Although the UK and US might seem to have cornered the market on submarine stories (at least, once they wrested the title from Frenchman Jules Verne), but that's not entirely true. The Japanese anime series from the 60s follows a boy who is apparently actually called Marine Boy. The precocious youngster serves in the Ocean Patrol, a peacekeeping organization charged with keeping the now colonized oceans safe. He serves on the P-1, a small submarine patrol craft that is part of the Ocean Patrol's large fleet. He's helped out in his missions by the inventions of his father, top Ocean Patrol scientist Dr. Mariner.
12. The Leif Erikson from The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
These psychedelic, satirical, more than a little insane books by Shea and Wilson are just about within the realm of science fiction, so let's take a moment to talk about the Leif Erikson. Named for the great Viking explorer, the ship is made out of solid gold and captained by Hagbard Celine. Celine is the leader of the Discordians and sworn enemy of the secret cabal that rules the world. He shares many similarities with Captain Nemo, so much so that some have theorized he might be one and the same person. On the one hand, that wouldn't really make any sense at all. On the other hand, this is The Illuminatus! Trilogy we're talking about. Logic doesn't necessarily enter the equation.
13. The Red October from The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
Submarine stories are, pretty much by their very nature, about the interaction of humans and advanced technology, as these incredible machines allow people to plunge into the once inaccessible depths of the ocean, with all the wonder and claustrophobia that comes with that ability. That means that all submarine stories are, in some sense, a kind of science fiction, although not all of them have that obvious futuristic element that would more clearly place them in the genre. Quite a few exist right on the borderline, and probably no story is harder to classify than The Hunt for Red October.
It all depends on how you feel about that pesky silent propulsion system (which, as Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons has pointed out, has a host of technical errors that Alec Baldwin is sure to enjoy discussing). Whether it's the advanced pumpjet system of the Tom Clancy novel or the magnetohydrodynamic system of the movie (which, of the two, definitely sounds more scifi), The Hunt for Red October is here as a reminder that, when it comes to submarines, it's sometimes difficult to remember what's crazy science fiction invention and what's just regular old cutting edge technology.
14. The seaQuest DSV 4600 from seaQuest
For whatever reason, submarines have been largely ignored by science fiction in recent years, with pretty much the one major exception of this mid-nineties NBC series. Starring the great Roy Scheider as Captain Nathan Bridger, the series follows the exploits of a high-tech submarine in the near future. The show takes place at a time when all terrestrial natural resources have been exhausted and humans begin colonizing the ocean floor in search of new raw materials. The seaQuest takes a central role as peacekeeper and mediator in this brave new underwater world.
The show never quite came together, in part because NBC and the show's producers constantly fought over the direction the show should take. The original format was heavily focused on realistic storylines with ecological and political theme, while in the second season NBC shifted its focus to more out there science fiction ideas like aliens and time travel. This jarring shift, coupled with some occasionally weak scripts and characterizations and a whole bunch of cast changes, the show almost completely collapsed before coming back for one last season as seaQuest 2032, with the also great Michael Ironside taking over as captain.
Although some saw the darker third season as an improvement, the show still struggled mightily in the rating and was canceled after thirteen episodes. Although seaQuest had its moments, it's safe to say there's still room for the next great submarine science fiction show. (I will also settle for more Stingray.)
Top image by Kevin O'Neill, showing the Nautilus in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.